The Bottom Half
by Bobby Chintapalli, TW Contributing Editor
You know the women’s singles draw is interesting when the half we’re really watching isn’t the one with the Williamses or even the Radwanskas but the one with the Bondarenkos. It’s gotten so much attention you’d think it has everyone but Venus, Serena and that line judge. You could still call it the Belgian half, but the Russians might laugh at you. If the Belgians are showing they’re back, the Russians are showing they’re still here. Here now are some big and small thoughts on the week that was, especially for the eight women left in the bottom half of the draw.
Let’s start with Kim Clijsters. And Pam Shriver, who saw it coming. In the second game of the Clijsters-Petrova match, Shriver commented that “Clijsters looks a bit… disheveled”. It’s hard to really understand what happened, because it went so fast. (The first set of the Dementieva-Henin match lasted almost five times as long as the first set of this one.) Petrova hit deep and hard, volleyed well and didn’t miss. Clijsters didn’t move well, wasn’t aggressive and couldn’t find the court. Perhaps it’s partly that Petrova didn’t allow Clijsters to play good tennis and partly that Clijsters couldn’t remember how. Recreational players know that some days you literally forget how to hit the ball; maybe the pros do too.
Justine Henin though is still front and center with the emphasis on ‘front’. During her win over Elena Dementieva in what Martina Navratilova called “the best-played second-round match ever”, Henin approached the net 43 times and won the point 35 times. (In all the two approached on more than a third of all points.) Not everything in Henin’s game is better, at least not yet. Her serve clearly faltered. She had trouble with her toss and threw in one more double-fault than Dementieva. Off court Henin seems more open. When asked about a new diamond ring she’s wearing, she helpfully explained that “it’s not coming from a lover, if that’s the question”.
The next big question for Henin is fellow Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, who Henin’s never played before (and whose most-admired player is Clijsters). Wickmayer is ranked Number 16 in the world but had to play the qualifying tournament to make the main draw. Not surprisingly she’s playing like she’s mad. (Heck, she’s walking to her seat during changeovers like she’s mad.) Maybe that’s good for Wickmayer: Happiness may make your insides feel warm, but anger is likelier to win you Grand Slams. (Just ask Serena, who partly attributes the Serena Slam to a guy who dumped her.) Hopefully the back issue that caused Wickmayer to pull out of doubles won’t flare up, so we get some Belgian ball-bashing (and variety) to remember.
In what may have been the most aesthetically-pleasing first match ever at the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova lost to That Other Maria. But just barely – Sharapova actually won one point more than Maria Kirilenko. In retrospect the result shouldn’t have been too surprising. While Sharapova’s played 10 tournaments and won one since she returned from shoulder surgery last May, she’s not yet the same player who served up a bagel or breadstick to Lindsay Davenport, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic on her way to the Australian Open title two years ago. She’s not serving as well, and her movement’s still not that good. You have to think she’s struggling with her confidence too. What’s great about Sharapova is that she doesn’t let it show on her face – on court or off. In post-match interviews she’s often insightful, articulate and, yes, defiant. After her loss she said, “A bad day's not going to stop me from doing what I love… I'll be back here on a Saturday of the second week… you watch.” I for one believe her.
All this talk about Sharapova isn’t to take anything away from the other 22-year-old Russian Maria, who beat Sharapova once before. Kirilenko may not do anything unbelievably well, but she also doesn’t do anything really badly. She didn’t hit with Sharapova’s pace, but she went for her shots, stayed calm and hustled better. (The hustling can’t be too hard when you’re as fit as she seems to be – you could bounce rubles off those abs.)
The (Rest of the) Russians
We’re talking here about Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina and Nadia Petrova. Some of you wouldn’t need names if I called this group ‘Russian Headcases’. Yet the phrase isn’t fair since we’re talking about a two-time Grand Slam winner (Kuznetsova), a former World Number 1 (Safina) and a former World No. 3 (Petrova). While I may have used the phrase a few times myself, I actually have a fondness for, uhm, underachieving Russians. (Especially the one the draw gods sacrificed at the altar of Justine Henin.) The thing is, they’re great, but we know they can be even better. With most of the attention elsewhere, now may be their best chance.
Kuznetsova’s quarter of the draw is the craziest quarter we’ve seen in a while, but she’s managed to make it all the way to the fourth round. After playing two ‘ova’s she’ll face another, the newly-scary Nadia Petrova.
If Sharapova hasn’t called Petrova to thank her yet, she should. Because of her surreal, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it win over Clijsters, Petrova may be the Russian getting the most attention this week. Kuznetsova’s ahead 5-1 in their head-to-head record, but Clijsters was up 4-0 and look where that got her. Kuznetsova may not be scared, but she’ll likely keep the jovial soccer-with-a-tennis-ball fun to a minimum all the same.
Then of course there’s Dinara Safina. Remember her? The player who, based on her ranking, should beat every woman in the world but one at the sport we love so much? Many of us probably haven’t seen much of her at this tournament (I know I haven’t), and that may be why she’s doing well. She hasn’t dropped a set yet. Maybe this year she’ll follow the Serena 2009 approach by hanging onto the Number 2 ranking while grabbing a Grand Slam title or two.
And , oh yeah, Ukrainian Alona Bondarenko and Chinese Jie Zheng are still around too. Thanks to them you can count on one non-Russian, non-Belgian player making it to the quarterfinals.